Support the north to lead the world on climate action and a green pandemic recovery


In her latest blog, Dr Annette Bramley, director of N8, discusses the urgent need for government investment into Net Zero North.

”In 1962, about 70% of men and 40% of women in the UK smoked, and they smoked everywhere – on trains and buses, at work, even in schools and hospitals. Fast forward 60 years and it is remarkable how times have changed. Latest UK figures (2019) show that only 14.1% of people aged 18 years and above smoke cigarettes. Due to government action at a policy and legislative level – combined with public health awareness campaigns – not smoking is now the normal choice for the vast majority of the UK population.

Now another message needs the same treatment. By now, we are all very familiar with phrases like global warming and climate crisis – devastating report follows devastating report; daily news stories of flooding, drought and wildfires follow powerful pictures of polar bears on melting ice.

While the majority of people are aware of the concept of global warming, the enormity and urgency of the crisis is less widely appreciated. New research by albert, a Bafta-backed sustainability report, showed that “banana bread” was heard 10 times more often on UK television last year than “wind power” and “solar power” combined.

The report also found that individual action, such as recycling, was far more frequently featured in the media than issues with a bigger impact on greenhouse gas emissions, such as energy and transport. It said: “There seems to be a correlation between a greater contribution to emissions and a lower rate of mentions.”

The message that the climate crisis endangers the future of humanity and that action needs to be taken immediately is not being communicated clearly enough by the media.  As a result, the issue cannot gain the groundswell of public opinion necessary for political traction, public spending or individual behaviour change at scale. We only have a couple of decades to turn the tide on greenhouse gas emissions and we need to start now.

At the time of writing, as the UK-hosted COP26 approaches, analysis shows that the world is on track for a temperature increase of 3C if present trends continue.  EVERY ONE of the world’s leading economies is failing to meet commitments made in the Paris Agreement in order to avert climate catastrophe.

According to Niklas Höhne, a researcher at NewClimate Institute, a partner organisation in this Climate Action Tracker analysis: “Anyone would think they have all the time in the world, when in fact the opposite is the case.”

After a 2018 IPCC climate change report, the UN said that we only have 12 years to limit the catastrophe. Nine years left then.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described the most recent 2021 IPCC report as a “code red for humanity”. Yet we know via a just-published report in Nature, that there are still plans across the world for continuing massive fossil fuel extraction.  90% of coal and 60% of oil and gas reserves should not be extracted if there is to be even a 50% chance of keeping global heating below 1.5C.

Despite all this, I remain hopeful that we can turn it around, and that the UK can take a global lead, as we did with curbing smoking rates, and in our innovation and roll-out of a vaccine for Covid-19.

Just as the success of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was built on expertise developed and nourished years before the pandemic hit, I’m confident that the knowledge base and the will already exists within our universities and business to lead us to a brighter future and help us the biggest challenge humanity is currently facing.

The forthcoming UK political conference season offers a chance for our leaders to sharpen their focus.  We must demand that COP26, where governments will be trying to figure out a workable 1.5C plan, will be much more than hot air. The disconnect between the Paris Agreement’s ambition and the growth of the fossil fuel industry has to be bridged.

I am optimistic because of the investments that have been made by businesses and the UK Government in the last couple of years, such as the UK’s first research, development and testing centre for hydrogen transport, which will be located on Teesside. I also believe that the understanding that substantive action is needed, and it is needed now, is becoming more mainstream in our corridors of power. Of all the countries assessed by the Climate Action Tracker, the UK’s climate pledges are deemed “almost sufficient” – far better than almost every other country.  We cannot afford to bask in the glow of “almost sufficient” because this is still, by definition, NOT sufficient.

I’ve painted a bleak – albeit accurate – picture which only scratches the surface here, but I believe we can deploy clean technologies at scale very quickly and accelerate deployment if the policy mechanisms are put in place.  Not only that, there is the potential for huge business growth and job creation in this rapidly expanding sector.

The N8 Research Partnership’s Net Zero North (NzN) initiative needs to be adopted at the highest level. Our eight universities have been working on this for some time. Three years ago we started the DecarboN8 programme bringing together Northern business, government and academia with the aim to create an innovation ecosystem and test bed environment which allows us to trial and accelerate the adoption of low carbon transport solutions.

And throughout the pandemic, we have been developing three parallel, pan-northern projects within NzN (Grow Smarter, Sustainable Hydrogen Economy and Skills and Productivity) that will accelerate economic growth by creating new job opportunities, promoting upskilling of the Northern workforce and supporting firms to innovate and adopt low carbon business models.

These will in-turn create a sustainable and resource-efficient society, particularly in economically challenging towns, cities and rural and coastal locations, to help with the establishment of skills hubs in Teesside (Sustainable Hydrogen Economy) and Eden Project North (Grow Smarter), among numerous other projects.

We have the potential to generate transformational change, accelerating low-carbon energy solutions, promoting green innovation and, of course, decarbonising industry. Many parts of the region are well placed to deliver the clusters needed with equivalent expertise to the biomedical super-cluster in the Golden Triangle of London, Cambridge and Oxford. In the North West, for example, we have the largest concentration of advanced manufacturing and chemical production in the UK. The area encompasses a concentration of energy intensive users and we have a huge opportunity to make a very tangible dent in the region’s carbon count.

NzN aligns closely with the government’s dual aims of levelling up and creating a high skilled green economy to enable us to ‘build back better’ from the pandemic.

Yet, while the project has been praised in Parliament, no funding has yet been forthcoming. Government needs to back this and invest in the sustainable hydrogen economy and nature-based methods for adapting to and mitigating climate change across the Northern Powerhouse.

Our regional collaboration will bring the skills, innovation and commercialisation needed at scale to kickstart this low carbon super-cluster and level-up through the green economy. It will support the health and wellbeing of the whole of the UK for many generations to come and help ensure that the UK becomes the world leader on this issue.

We don’t need another report on climate change, we need a transformation of attitudes and increased awareness that action on the climate can go hand in hand with boosting the UK economy.

The Prime Minister was absolutely right to tell the UN last week that COP 26 should be a “turning point for humanity”, but the UK needs to step up to enable the watershed change that is utterly fundamental.  We need legislative change and investment in skills and innovation for the green jobs and businesses of today and tomorrow. Net Zero North is standing by to deliver and is the government’s best bet for forging an ambitious, climate-conscious recovery from Covid-19.”